The Great American Recession is over. However, many are still recovering from its devastating effects. Of course, the level of “devastation” varies, depending on who you are and how you were affected. You may be fine now or on the upswing, or you may still be unemployed or underemployed, trying to recover from debt incurred, or compensate for lost savings. It doesn’t matter what the national statistics are, it matters what your personal statistics are.
Who’s to Blame?
If you battled through the Great Recession, it’s easy to look back and blame corporate greed: Wall Street, Big Banks, the housing industry (If anyone is still unsure as to how the housing market crashed, I recommend watching the movie The Big Short. It is not only entertaining- but informative as to how this all really went down, in words the average person can understand), the auto industry, the big box companies, all with their golden parachutes, stressful ‘productivity’ mandates, wage freezes, and general ransacking of the average citizen.
Corporate greed is bad. Very bad. Those jerks are just in it for themselves. They’re only looking out for Number One.
We all agree on that, right?
But what about consumer greed? How do we, as average citizens, contribute to the overall state of economics in our country?
The Role of Consumer Demand
Most Many Some of us try to be careful with our personal finances. We budget. We balance. We save. We invest. However, how often do we examine how our spending habits and actions influence corporate greed?
Business is all about supply and demand. Those corporate types may be greedy, but they’re also giving us what we want. We want inexpensive stuff and we want a lot of it. We want to pamper ourselves with as little money as possible as often as possible.
This is consumerism in a nutshell. Corporations oblige our demand for cheap luxury. Banks and predatory lenders finance it for us.
Between 2015-2016 restaurant spending beat grocery store spending on the average family’s budget. Back in 1947, this wasn’t even a line item. If people went out to eat then it was considered as part of their entertainment budget.
Yes, life is different now. Yes, we are working more and busier than ever. But is part of the reason we work more to afford more stuff and more luxuries and more pampering?
Think about the following and draw your own conclusions:
- The self-storage industry is a $22 BILLION industry
- A master bedroom closet today is now the size of a small bedroom 75 years ago
- The average house size has doubled since 1950 (while the average number of household members decreased by 31.4% by 2010).
- Americans are spending more on coffee and lunch than on their commute
- The number of cup holders in most cars is greater than the number of passengers they can hold
- We have cup holders on grocery carts (presumably because we are incapable of going 30-60 minutes without a beverage? Or because we can’t complete a task if there isn’t something in it for us?)
- Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are now in the freezer section with the crusts already cut off
- Almost 60% of homes have more than 3 televisions.
- More and more startups have launched that outsource everyday tasks like grocery shopping
This suggests we want more stuff, want to outsource our unwanted chores, and want to pamper ourselves. That is great when you can afford it, but statistics show that almost 50% of Americans do not have enough savings to cover an unexpected $500 expense. Additionally, the average savings rate for those who do save is 4.4%. And the average credit card debt is $5,700.00. There’s a disconnect between these statistics and the statistics around consumer demand.
When we demand cheap luxury or labor, corporations do what they can to supply our demand. It’s hard to make a profit when you’re selling products at a discount though. As a result, this kind of consumer demand encourages low wages, part-time job positions without benefits, overworked employees, and even more corporate greed.
Note from Kristin: The airline industry is a perfect example of this. Unbundling has made it cheap to fly, but because airlines have to squeeze more people onto more planes, flights are more uncomfortable than ever. We complain about this business model, but we don’t show it with our pocketbooks. Despite what we say, our spending shows we’d rather be cheap and uncomfortable.
Consumerism From a Small Business Perspective
And what about that gig economy? How do we treat the self-employed? We want to support them because they aren’t part of the corporate machine, right? But we still want to get top quality at the lowest prices. No matter what.
I’ve been a self-employed pastry chef and sugar artist for 18 years. I specialize in special occasion and wedding cakes. I make a top quality product with the finest ingredients and toil hours over each creation. I have won awards, my work has been published on 3 continents, I’ve been on one of those cool TV shows, made cakes for large corporations, congressmen, and other minor celebrities. I’m good at what I do but no one actually ever NEEDS a cake. It is a luxury item. You can get married and turn another year older without a single bite of cake.
Yet, on a weekly basis, people complain. On occasion, they scream. Why? They want some fantastical piece of edible art for the price of a factory made, preservative laden, generic cake in the grocery store case. They don’t care if I’ve poured time and money into educating myself, honing my craft, or have the ability to give them a superior product.
They want what they want at the corporate price. They aren’t interested in quality or value. They aren’t interested if I am making or losing money. They are not interested that their wants exceed their budget. All that matters is their bottom line.
Corporate America is evil for low wages and overwork, but somehow it’s ok to ask the little guy to work for next to nothing. Meanwhile, the average worker struggles to provide for his or her family (or his or herself), but it’s all good because none of us has to give up our affordable luxuries.
This same scenario applies to every artisan, freelancer, and sole proprietorship in every industry I know of. It’s consumer greed.
I’m not saying we shouldn’t receive great value when we spend our money. I’m not saying we should be Spartans. I’m not saying that we never deserve a treat. However, maybe we need to think more about our expectations and what we truly value — and how our actions contribute to what we value.
I know what you’re thinking…this isn’t you…these are random statistics…I’m painting with a broad brush…it’s making you uncomfortable. Yes, to all of it. I’m not trying to shame anyone, it’s just some food for thought.
Maybe we don’t need as many things. Maybe we can do without if we don’t have the money for it. Maybe we can do for ourselves more. Maybe we could pay individuals fairly for their hard work. Maybe we could work less if we were willing to have less.
Maybe we can look at what we’re contributing to the overall picture.
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